It wasn't the good old days, but it might have been a good start.
On a night where they honored the 1997 Big 12 South champions, Texas A&M used some familiar weapons -- a strong running game and an aggressive defense -- to rally from a 10-point 3rd quarter deficit to down South Carolina 24-17.
The Aggies (4-1, 2-0 SEC) trailed 17-7 with 9:24 to go in the 3rd, but essentially put a stranglehold on the Gamecocks (3-2, 1-2 SEC) after that. The fourth quarter was one-sided, as the Aggies scored 14 points and racked up 151 yards of offense while limiting South Carolina to an anemic 7 yards.
A&M dominated a scoreless 1st quarter before Trayveon Williams (16 carries, 56 yards, 1 TD) scored from a yard out just 15 seconds into the 2nd. South Carolina would immediately counter as QB Jake Bentley (17-30, 256 yards, 2 TD) hit WR Shi Smith for a 45-yard TD pass after avoiding a furious pass rush. After A&M's experiment with an offensive line including four true freshmen and sophomore center Erik McCoy backfired again (two incompletions and a sack, followed by a shanked punt by Shane Tripucka), the Gamecocks took advantage of a short field to add 3 points and take a 10-7 lead.
“South Carolina decided that they couldn’t run it at all, so they just said we are going to throw it every snap which is not what they have been doing. They threw it every snap and were effective doing it," A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said.
After Bentley hit OrTre Smith for a very easy 13-yard score to cap a 6-play, 80-yard drive and put the Gamecocks up 17-7, the Aggie defense overwhelmed a depleted South Carolina front line. The visitors would go rapidly backward, netting -30 yards on their next four possessions as the defense, led by LB Otaro Alaka (9 tackles, 5 TFL, 2 sacks) and DE Landis Durham (4 tackles, 2 sacks) brought down Bentley 7 times -- 4 in the 4th quarter alone.
"One, we got the crowd in it. That was a big help. We've got one of the best fanbases in the country. Second, we dialed up the pressure. We saw it was working all game and stuck with it," Alaka said.
The offense took notice, rushing the ball 16 times for 88 yards and 2 TDs in the final stanza.
"(The defense) came out and played awesome. In the second half, they put it on them and enforced their will. That made us want to do the same. They were doing their job, we had to do ours," McCoy said.
The job started with true freshman QB Kellen Mond (19-27, 159 yards passing; 16 carries, 95 yards rushing), who took over the game with his legs. After avoiding a sack and potential disaster on the first play of the 4th quarter, Mond took off and gained 18 yards. He followed that up with runs of 14 and 9 yards, along with a 26-yard completion to Damion Ratley on 2nd and 17, to keep the drive going. It was capped off by a 7-yard run by Keith Ford (12 carries, 70 yards, 2 TD), who was shoved into the end zone by the entire A&M offensive line.
"Field position became a big deal for us in the third and fourth quarter. We had long fields in the first half. That flipped in the second half. In the third and fourth quarter, we were able to keep them down there and get the ball in decent field position and capitalize on it. (Mond) did a nice job on that," Sumlin said.
After a quick 3 and out for the Gamecocks, Ford went back to work, picking up 26 of the 46 yards on a 5-play drive that ended with the senior running back running over to South Carolina defenders on his way to a touchdown and a lead A&M would not relinquish.
"I don't like to go down," he said later.
The Gamecocks never mounted much of a threat after that, as Alaka, Zaycoven Henderson, Kingsley Keke and Jarrett Johnson all sacked Bentley to help stem a South Carolina comeback. USC had one final chance to tie the game with 1:52 to go, but never got the ball past midfield before turning the ball over on downs. It was a welcome change from the disaster at UCLA and seeing Arkansas' repeated rallies alst week before A&M won in overtime.
"It's something that our coaches have been pushing: just finish. It's something our coaches have been pushing. Finish. It doesn't matter who we're playing," McCoy said.